MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The Steelers season has changed quickly and in rather dramatic fashion, just like the weather does here.
They had arrived in South Florida late Saturday afternoon as a 4-1 team that, while not without its flaws, was finding ways to win despite a list of injured players growing numerically and also in terms of the significance of the names on it. They were overcoming some inadequacies and compensating for others by taking advantage of some of their unique strengths. And overall, the 2016 Steelers had the look of a contender.
By the time they got out of town, they didn't look to be any of those things. Their record was 4-2 after a head-scratching 30-15 loss to the Miami Dolphins in which they were outplayed in decisive fashion in every aspect of the game. Their injury list suddenly looked insurmountable as it expanded to include Ben Roethlisberger, and after studying the particulars of this defeat – coming as it did just a few weeks after 34-3 in Philadelphia and with reports that Roethlisberger would undergo surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee and be out an indefinite time as a result – that look of a contender was feeling like a mirage.
Because this had been another of those scenarios in which the Steelers arrived as the visiting team with a better record, there was hope that this one would turn out differently, that the Steelers would gather themselves and find a way to defeat the Dolphins, as they had done the previous two weekends to Kansas City and the New York Jets.
Game action from Week 6 against the Miami Dolphins.
Alas, that was not to be, and there were plenty of statistical reasons why. Forty-eight hours before kickoff, Coach Mike Tomlin was saying that he believed the hidden special teams yardage – the difference in the two teams' net punting average, as well as the respective difference in where offensive possessions began – would be an indicator of the outcome.
Well, those statistics certainly pointed to a situation that screamed advantage Dolphins. Miami's net punting average was 38.5 yards, while the Steelers' was 30.8. The Dolphins average start on drives following kickoffs was the 37-yard line; for the Steelers it was the 23-yard line.
And for those looking for maybe a less obscure measure of the way the game played out, there were plenty of choices, such as Miami rushing for 222 yards, or having a plus-2 edge in turnover ratio, or converting 50 percent on third downs to the Steelers' 27 percent, or enjoying a 13-minute edge in time of possession.
Playing without Cam Heyward and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense made zero big plays and offered only token resistance to a Miami offense that came into the game ranked No. 31 in the NFL in rushing, No. 30 in interceptions thrown, No. 32 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, No. 31 in third down conversions, and No. 28 in points scored. It was so bad that with 5:56 left in the fourth quarter, Tomlin used a timeout to try to break the Dolphins' offensive momentum, much in the way a basketball coach might do.
Nothing worked, and that assessment deserves to be applied to the offense and special teams, too.
The offense, already hamstrung by injuries to starters Marcus Gilbert and Markus Wheaton, largely would be doing without Sammie Coates as well, because even though he was in uniform and saw action at wide receiver, he was quite literally trying to play with one hand because the other one contained some relatively fresh stitches and what was reported as a broken index finger.
But injuries alone don't explain why Le'Veon Bell and Le'Veon Bell combined for only 13 carries against a Miami defense that was last in the league against the run, or why an offensive line that controlled a talented Jets front seven last week had less success against the Dolphins defensive front. The perception of the Steelers pass rush is that it's pathetic, and it came into the game with eight sacks. The Dolphins came in with 10. Yesterday, Miami sacked Roethlisberger twice and pressured him six times, and on one of those plays his knee was injured.
The severity of the injury and the particulars of the procedure that's to repair it remain speculation at this time, but it seems certain that the Steelers will face the New England Patriots next week without Roethlisberger, and his availability for the game in Baltimore on Nov. 6 following the bye doesn't look promising either.
There still is a lot of regular season left to be played, and none of the guys on the injured list, including Roethlisberger, are gone for the rest of it, but there is little doubt the Steelers' season took a dramatic turn here yesterday. Because all of the AFC North teams lost yesterday, the division's pecking order is unchanged with them at the top, but the task of winning without your franchise quarterback is always a difficult one, and it isn't as though the Steelers showed against the Dolphins that another aspect of their game is ready and capable of picking up the slack.
The Steelers are about to face a challenge stiffer than the combination of all of the others this season has presented to them so far. After their performance against the Dolphins, even that seems better than more games against sub-.500 opponents.